Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Buddy Duress
The millstone of starring in a widely derided young adult franchise has spurred Twilight star Robert Pattinson into a series of increasingly impressive independent roles which have rehabilitated his credentials to the point that his involvement is now a draw rather than a concern. The same can be said for Kristen Stewart, whose work with the likes of Olivier Assayas and Kelly Reichardt has transformed her into a darling of the arthouse. Of course, the two of them would be nothing without the considerable resources of talent that landed them their former starring roles in the first place. And much as Pattinson may lament Twilight, it’s provided him with the clout to reinvent himself.
But it was Pattinson who called the Safdie brothers, eager to work with them, one assumes immediately following the arrival of their breathless 2015 breakout Heaven Knows What. The brothers have made a quick reputation for themselves as dynamic (infuriatingly young and talented) storytellers sifting through the lowest classes for raw tales from the streets of New York. Their cinema takes place out in the world with the homeless and the desperate, in communal spaces like arcades, shopping malls and at intersections, their eye drawn to those that haven’t a footing in conventional society.
Pattinson might sound like a hard fit if you’ve not seen his diversity in such projects as The Rover or The Lost City Of Z, but his chameleonic nature enables him to fit seamlessly into the Safdie’s down and dirty aesthetic. In Good Time he plays Connie, a hustler and a chancer on the prowl throughout a long New York night as he tries to find the means to bail his disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie himself), arrested following a comically bungled bank heist. The purpose of the heist itself is to fulfill a half-sketched fantasy of purchasing a farm in the woods (an imagined property, it seems); the act a desperate attempt to find a quick fix for the brothers’ down-trodden circumstances.
Connie enables his brother, boosting his confidence, providing solidarity, but there’s little reason for Nick to be involved in the robbery other than the assumption that Connie couldn’t find or trust anybody else. The money is for them, after all. By including his brother, Connie jeopardises the attempt and the film’s unfolding story is a series of falling dominoes, all cascading from the knock-on effect of a succession of bad decisions. It plays out like an extended joke, a shaggy dog story, or an old wives’ tale. It’s episodic, seemingly rambling, and has the breathless feel of improvisation were it not for the specificity of the scenarios Connie finds himself in.
His reckless temperament causes him to take needless risks. The urgency to get Nick back on the streets isn’t made crystal clear, but Connie goes to extreme lengths to make it happen that night. When Nick is maced in holding he is transferred to the hospital (this following the painfully hilarious reason he’s captured in the first place). Connie’s attempt to break his brother out from police custody, shackled to a hospital bed is bracingly suspenseful. It’s high-risk, ramshackle, off the cuff behaviour. Desperation without clear rationale. But immediacy is what makes the Safdie brothers’ work so electric.
They work handheld, employ street extras, here filming largely at night. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams injects urgency into the picture by always seeming as though he’s just keeping up with Pattinson, who storms through the film like a force of nature. Neon pink becomes a recurring motif, from an unexpected explosion of dye recasting Nick and Connie as comic criminals, to the sickly glow of bedroom lights and fairground rides as this journey swerves us through a string of unexpected locations.
Along the way the Safdies throw in elements of social commentary (racial profiling, how distracted we are by technology) but in the main Good Time feels like being told a rolling piece of bristling street poetry. A microcosm of this sensation occurs within the film when a character named Ray (Buddy Duress) talks us through a fast-paced flashback that ends with information that Connie hopes will lead to his salvation.
All of this is underpinned by a propulsive synth score from Oneohtrix Point Never which encompasses elements of grunge, industrial and dubstep into its juddering, relentless drive. It’s one of the standout musical accompaniments of the year; a collision of ideas as intoxicating as a Sprite bottle full of acid.
The only thing that particularly undercuts Good Time is an underlying thread of Schadenfreude that was largely absent from Heaven Knows What. Though just as gnarly, this followup feels a touch superior to its characters and their mishaps can feel like uncomfortable gags. Do they deserve it? That’s up to you. But it goes against the sense of sincerity otherwise generated.
Still, few American filmmakers approach the gutter with such unblinking verve. This is riveting, intense cinema, some of the most interesting being produced in the United States. And if the after effect isn’t quite up to the immediacy of the moment, the experience is one worth having. No wonder they’re getting calls from the likes of Pattinson.
Your move, Taylor Lautner.